Turkmenistan has approved a constitutional amendment that will allow its President to rule for as long as he likes.
Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has ruled Turkmenistan since 2006. His predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, died while still in office at the age of 66 – he was President for 21 years, during which time he established a bizarre personality cult in which he became officially known as “Turkmenbashi” – leader of all Turkmens. Berdymukhamedov picked up where he left off, erecting a golden statue of himself (as Niyazov had done before him) and becoming known as Turkmenistan’s “Arkadag” (protector).
The constitution had mandated that a President must stand down at the age of 70. The 59-year-old Berdymukhamedov has seen that rule scrapped. Each Presidential term has also been extended – from five to seven years.
The amendments were approved by Turkmenistan’s Council of Elders, passed unanimously in parliament, then signed into law by Berdymukhamedov. The next election will be held next year, but Berdymukhamedov is not expected to face any significant opposition.
Central Asian leaders are renowned for their extended stays in office. In May, 94.5% of Tajiks voted for similar amendments to their constitution. President Imomali Rakhmon has already been in power since 1992. Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov had served as President since 1989 before his death earlier this month. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has also ruled since 1989 and won 97.7% of the vote at the last election, held a year earlier than anticipated in 2015.
What does this mean for minorities?
Turkmenistan is considered one of the most restrictive places in the world. It is number 19 on the 2016 Open Doors World Watch List, which ranks the 50 countries in which it is most difficult to practise Christianity.
Turkmenistan’s comparatively small population of just 5 million makes it “easier to control”, one local Christian told World Watch Monitor. Dissenting voices are quickly silenced through imprisonment, brutality and hefty fines.
Niyazov’s death in 2006 brought hope that restrictions might ease, but Berdymuhamedov has proved a like-for-like replacement.
Open Doors estimates there are around 95,000 Christians in Turkmenistan, but just a dozen or so registered churches – the majority of which are Russian Orthodox. As most ethnic Turkmens are very unwilling to be associated with the Russian Orthodox churches, they have few legal options for practising their faith.
“Non-registered religious activity is illegal… Even registered religious communities face regular check-up visits. There is strict control by the government and local authorities over the Turkmen population, and all communication is being monitored,” according to the World Watch List. “Publishing and distributing religious literature is prohibited, and its import is monitored and censored. There is no Christian bookshop in the country.”